Wednesday, January 06, 2010

What Most People Need Is A Good Listening To

You probably have a lot to say, a lot on your mind, a need to vent a bit. So do I. So do most people. There is a plenitude of folks who want to talk. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of folks who want to listen.

Perhaps you are thinking, "That's not true. I have to listen to others all day long. I am lucky to get even a scrap of air time." That may well be. There are plenty of people who feel that they have to listen. I am talking about people who want to listen.

It is much more difficult to listen when compelled to do so instead of desiring to do so. You may very well hear every word spoken. You may even remember most of them. But as John Milton wrote "The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven". The ear can pick up the sound waves, the brain can process and store the message, while the mind is stubbornly pursuing its own agenda. Sometimes that agenda is well meaning, as when we are wondering what is the best thing to say in response to what is being heard. Other times the mind is simply bouncing about from topic to topic and only occasionally stopping in to participate in the current conversation. Very little true listening is going on. Regardless of whether we are sympathetic or merely bored, hearing is not listening.

If I want to listen, I must start with the proper motivation: How can I best serve this person?. Desiring to serve differs fundamentally from desiring to be served. How we grow our desire to serve is a topic outside the scope of this essay. For my purpose here, I am going to assume that we want to serve.

We must dump the idea that listening is a passive activity. To really listen, we must actively consider the words, the tone, the body language, and the context. Our goal is to understand what the speaker is saying, as well as why they feel it needs to be said. We can gauge the efficacy of our listening by checking to see how well we understand. The simplest way to check is to occasionally rephrase a part of what you have heard and feed it back to the speaker. You will often get a response ranging from "No, that's not what I mean" to "Well, sort of" and on to "Exactly!".

I like to fish. Fishing is most exciting when I feel the line tug in a way that makes me cry out "fish on!". When I paraphrase what someone has said and they say "Exactly!", we both get a similar thrill. I use exactly as a representative word. The speaker may actually say "Yes!", "That's it", or any of a wide range of exclamations and affirmations. It may even be a nonverbal response. One of my friends energetically points his finger at me when I understand him well; another widens his eyes and nods.

That moment of understanding is precious to both speaker and listener. It is a building block for relationships.

Another way to check understanding is to respond to what you have heard by telling an anecdote. Strive for a quick story that shows how you have experienced or observed something very similar to what the speaker hopes to convey. When you miss the mark, common responses include a frown, a puzzled look, or even a head shake. Verbal responses may be as direct as "That's not what I am talking about" or as passive as a vague "oh". In those cases you may need to reestablish the speaker's train of thought by referring back to what was said earlier or by asking a clarifying question.

Speaking of questions, avoid asking questions that are really disguised advice. It isn't nearly so disguised as you think. Advice should only be offered when asked for. Even then, offer it sparingly. People with advice are abundant. People willing to listen well are rare, and correspondingly more valuable.

You may find yourself longing for someone who will listen well to you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Just be patient. Model the behavior you would like to see. Remember to encourage those who listen even a little, and to cherish those who listen well.

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